Devolution, Sri Lanka’s defence and security

Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka | Published on May 23, 2013 at 7:43 pm

G.L Peiris and the unit of devolution

Prof G.H. Peiris in his latest response (‘The Case against the Thirteenth Amendment’, The Island Midweek Review, May 22-23, 2013) to my article in The Island of 15th May 2013, argues that the distribution of ethnicity renders the district rather than the province the more suitable unit of devolution if empowering the minorities is the name of the game. My counter arguments are threefold: domestic geopolitics, politics, and regional geopolitics. Or, to reduce it a single factor, the realities of the balance of power and the island’s strategic vulnerability.

Northern Province has a Tamil majority

Firstly, it is not merely the Jaffna district or any single district in the North, but the Northern Province that has a Tamil majority. The Tamils

G.L. Peiris

of that province have evolved and crystallised a collective identity that the Sri Lankan state must accommodate, institutionally and structurally, if it is to remain as a single overarching entity over the very long duration. Military dominance alone cannot ensure this and in any case such dominance is both prohibitively expensive to sustain and easily neutralised by far stronger players over the horizon. I recall Prof Peiris’ distinguished colleague Prof KM de Silva writing that the matter ultimately boils down to the Northern Province and conceding that the case for devolution to that province is a rather strong one, unlike that for a merged North-East or even for the Eastern province.

Takes two to tango

Secondly, it takes two to tango; this is all about dialogue and negotiation, and no administration has been able to persuade a Tamil party of any significance to accept the district as the main unit of devolution. It is a non-starter and GoSL would have no representative Tamil partner for a process of political dialogue and reconciliation.

Watching with pride the V day march past

Thirdly, the vital strategic and security realities: the sophisticated and increasingly influential Tamil secessionist network (of which the Tigers are only a component), are attempting to widen the contradictions between Sri Lanka and India, Sri Lanka and the US, and Sri Lanka and the Indo-US axis. Watching with pride the V-day march past on TV, I was seized by the crucial importance of protecting our superbly honed (and hopefully, not corrosively over-politicised) military machine from the trap that the Tamil secessionists are setting for it, namely to place it in the line of fire of Indian kinetic power, backstopped diplomatically and strategically by the US.

BBS speak

As a student of comparative politics I am keenly aware that the unravelling of Yugoslavia – whose fine army, steeped in guerrilla fighting traditions had long deterred Stalin’s Russia — commenced precisely with the abolition of the autonomous status of the province of Kosovo. That unravelling was the result of political lobbying and argumentation by Serbian ultra-nationalists, along exactly the lines that Prof Gerry Peiris and his co-thinkers (such as the Bodu Bala Sena, oxymoron though it be) are engaging in today.

Firm measures contemplated in New Delhi

The usually well-informed political column of the Sunday Times (Colombo) reported that “…These sources said India’s External Affairs Minister Khurshid “politely told” Peiris that any such measures by the Government of Sri Lanka would be “at its own risk” and would force the

External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid

New Delhi Government to react with “firm measures.” He has also cautioned that Sri Lanka would be isolating itself in the international community.” (‘Storm Clouds Still Over CHOGM’ May 19th 2013) That report (which pertained to 13A, as distinct from the one about the acquisition of 6,000 acres) has not been contradicted so far, by GoSL. My collection of back issues of the Lanka Guardian is replete with such statements made in the years leading to the intervention of 1987 – accompanied by the accurate editorial reading of those (Indian) tea leaves.

Cognitive dissonance

It is not that intervention is already planned. However, the atmosphere, diplomatic (Geneva, New York), conceptual (retroactive R2P) and world opinion, is building up – or being created—which is not unpropitious for such intervention and in which any intervention would be readily endorsed. It certainly went uncontested in 1987. The last time, Sri Lanka was able to roll back that intervention because the LTTE took on the IPKF, generating collective cognitive dissonance in Tamil Nadu which in turn led to VP Singh making and fulfilling an electoral promise to withdraw Indian troops. In any future scenario of intervention, this factor will not operate. There will be no Tamil army fighting the Indians or anyone else who may come along. There will also be no foreign troops in the Sinhala areas, and therefore no possibility of a heroic, protracted, patriotic guerrilla war of national liberation against them. The Sri Lankan armed forces, being almost totally Sinhala, will find it impossible to wage guerrilla war in Tamil areas, with restive Tamil civilians in its rear, against a foreign interventionist force, which is in any case able to neutralise our most significant military assets not just in the North but all over the island, in a single strike wave. There will be an overwhelming force projection which cuts off the Tamil areas and imposes punitive strikes (as happened to Serbia) in case of massive Tamil civilian casualties due to reactive ‘ethnic cleansing’ ( real or perceived) in the South.

Stance of an ostrich 

Any lucid strategic thinking does not proceed from intention but capacity, and plans for worst case scenarios, not best case ones. Sri Lanka must make note of its security environment and its strategic vulnerabilities. Changes in that environment are , in all probability, not aimed at Sri Lanka and have nothing to do with us, but can also be used against us in a worst-case scenario. It is the stance of an ostrich to assume that Indian and US planners do not have Hambantota on their maps and have planned for neutralisation of a possible asset of their Asian rival. The dispositions that result from such planning can be used for other contingencies.

Speculation about US military arrangements in Maldives   

I would draw attention not only to the speculation about US military arrangements with the Maldives, but far more importantly, the supplementing of the existing Indian naval air base in the South (which has the longest airstrip in the region) with the brand new airbase in Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu, to which India plans to transfer its top-of-the line Sukhoi SU30MKI warplanes. One notes that neither China nor Pakistan lie to the south of India. Sri Lanka does lie within the operational arc (and the intersecting Indo-US arcs) of such arrangements. Therefore, large security zones and military dispositions provide no real security beyond a limited point and may indeed prove excessively vulnerable (especially to stand-off weaponry).

Target hardened 

The bottom line is that if Sri Lanka’s costly military victory which has given us back our natural borders, is to be made permanent; if Sri Lanka’s fine military is to be ‘ target hardened’; if Sri Lanka’s security is to be truly assured, it cannot be done purely or primarily by hard power alone, but by restoring our soft power. Provincial devolution in the form of the 13th amendment (perhaps with mutually agreed upon swaps in the concurrent list), is a political solution which lies at the cusp of acceptance, however grudging, by both Sinhalese and Tamils communities. It will help us to strategically re-stabilise our relations with India which (as Geneva 2012 and 2013 have shown) have deteriorated since 2009 and seem to be on a slippery slope. Moderate, prudently centripetal provincial devolution is an indispensable part of our national defence shield.

GL vs DJ 

It is rather sad that Prof GH Peiris sees fit to distort what I said in order to say what he must. He writes that “My response to Dr. DJ’s article (The Island of 15 May) was restricted almost entirely to his attempt to persuade the reader that the Thirteenth Amendment was essentially a product of indigenous political thought and strategy, and not a consequence of India’s coercive intervention in the internal affairs of Sri Lanka.”

Sleight of hand 

I had said no such thing and even the most cursory re-reading would demonstrate that Prof Peiris is engaging in sleight of hand by substituting ‘the 13th amendment’ for ‘province based devolution’. My point had been that the case for province–based devolution had long, non-Indian (and non-Tiger) antecedents; that the case had issued from intelligent reflections on the problem of political relations between Sinhalese and Tamils in 20th century Ceylon/Sri Lanka. I argued that the specific form that provincial devolution eventually took– that of coercive Indian diplomacy and the 13th amendment– was due precisely to the decades-long delay in implementing such devolution domestically.

Soulbury plus

I proceed to caution that just as the blockage of a domestic process of devolution to the provinces resulted in or provided the opening for external intervention, an ethnically unilateral abolition or disembowelling of existing arrangements for devolution is likely to revive such external interference and intrusion, and do so in an external environment that is at least as unpropitious as that of the 1980s and arguably even more so. I observe that this may dovetail with the strategic designs of the global Tamil separatist network and result in jeopardising Sri Lanka’s military achievement and our strategic assets. I therefore conclude that though the implementation of provincial level devolution in the form of the existing 13th amendment constitutes a risk, a significantly greater risk, on balance, would be posed to our sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity by the unilateral scrapping or permanent freezing of such devolution. I would withdraw my argument if a grand bargain could be struck with the predominant parliamentary party of the Tamils in which provincial devolution is replaced by devolution to the district in exchange for a more equal citizenship–which I have called the ‘Soulbury Plus’ scenario.


Prof Peiris refers to my contention ( and no, it wasn’t my “central contention”) that “… had the agreements announced at the PPC (Political Parties Conference) of mid-1986 or at the APC (All Parties Conference) of 1984, which were primarily domestic processes, been implemented, there would have been no opening for Indian intervention in mid-1987”. He proceeds to ask “Does such a “central contention” even deserve a response?” I’m afraid so. I repeat, had the domestic deliberations for devolution been successful and been implemented, starting with the B-C Pact of 1957 right up to the June 1986 PPC proposals, would India have felt the compulsion or had the politico-diplomatic opening it did, to intervene? This is not idle speculation. It has very considerable current relevance. As Ambassador Tamara Kunanayakam and I have separately yet consistently cautioned, the case is being built up that Sri Lanka either has no will or capacity to undertake domestic reform including in the realm of political dialogue and reconciliation with the Tamils, and that this case is the foundation for escalation to greater levels of external interventionism, conceivably culminating in the most intrusive and dangerous.


Prof Peiris queries “Wasn’t the PPC of 1986 very largely a dialogue between a segment of the UNP leadership and representatives of the TULF?” Well, frankly, no, because the TULF did not attend the conference (though Mr Amirthalingam returned to Sri Lanka briefly and observed the deliberations at some remove).


He goes onto to assert that “From 1936, as the leader of the Sinhala Maha Sabha, until his electoral victory 20 years later, SWRD remained one of the most ardent exponents of the unitary nation-state of Sri Lanka. To Dr DJ, these are inconsequential.”

Sinhala only  

Of what conceivable relevance is this, when SWRD Bandaranaike negotiated the pact for provincial devolution (regional councils with amalgamation even across provincial boundaries) one year after his victory in 1956 and the passage of Sinhala Only? And what pray has SWRD’s or anyone’s support for the unitary nation state of Sri Lanka to do with devolution within precisely such a unitary state, which was the case with the B-C Pact and the autonomy arrangements in a great many unitary political systems throughout the world?

Coercive external intervention 

Prof Peiris queries whether “as evidence, do these tiny bits of thrash picked up as it were from the “dust bin of history” represent the early stages of a vibrant domestic process that culminated in province-based devolution in 1987?” Perhaps not, but then again, I never said that it was a ‘vibrant domestic process’, merely that the political idea had been around for quite some time, including in the serious manifestation of the B-C Pact, and that it was the failure to make the transition from an overly centralised unitary state to one with sufficient devolution of power so as to bring it line with domestic geopolitical realities that “culminated in province based devolution in 1987” through coercive external intervention.


Seeking to combat my contention about the B-C Pact and the tragedy that resulted from its non-implementation at the time, Prof Peiris says that “anything might have happened if it was actually implemented. To go by Indian experiences, it could have intensified Sinhalese ultra-nationalism which could have… intensified rather than defused Sinhalese-Tamil hostilities to a level which, especially in the period during which the “Uncrowned Empress” held sway over India, could have resulted in an Indian military intervention in Sri Lanka, and a “liberation” not only of the claimed ‘traditional homeland’ but an area embracing “Malainadu” as well where more than a million stateless Indian Tamils were present. Such a scenario, to my mind, is substantially more realistic that what the ‘realist’ Dayan has said about the possible outcome of pre-emptive provincial devolution in 1986 or early ‘87.”

Lucid realism 

Well, let the reader judge the lucid realism of that scenario, bearing in mind however, that “to go by Indian experience” as Prof Peiris says we should, nowhere has a region seceded because an agreement for autonomy was arrived at and implemented. On the contrary every serious scholar agrees that it is precisely the flexible accommodation of regional (sub) nationalisms that has permitted the vastly diverse India to stay together. This is not to say that Sri Lanka should seek to imitate India’s arrangements, only to learn from them as from other places.

Kumaratunga commitment to devolution

Prof Peiris then contests my argument that “had the Thirteenth Amendment preceded the ‘Operation Liberation’ of mid-1987, there would have been no Indian intervention.” His counter-argument is to quote from my 1995 book on Sri Lanka with regard to the provocative conduct of the EPRLF led North Eastern Provincial Council. Prof Peiris is oblivious to the irony that he is proving my case. The EPRLF was both tempted and capable of engaging in that kind of militia based adventurism precisely because of the presence of the IPKF, which would not have been on Sri Lankan soil had we legislated devolution through a domestic process before the launch of Operation Liberation and as a preparation for it.

Army under CBK

The commitment of President Kumaratunga to a political solution (however imprudently over-generous those packages were) and the promise to implement 13A repeatedly made by President Rajapaksa and his troika of top representatives (who included two of his siblings) to New Delhi, constituted an important factor , apart from the murder of Rajiv Gandhi by the LTTE—in keeping India ‘on side’, when the army under CBK liberated Jaffna and when President Rajapaksa finally crushed the LTTE despite Western moves for a ceasefire and Indian elections including in Tamil Nadu. This last factor explains why President Rajapaksa saw fit to reiterate the commitment to implement fully the 13th amendment, in two summit level communiqués, issued just days AFTER the conclusion of the war, on May 21 and 23rd .This tends to prove my point that Indian intervention could have been avoided had devolution been in place at least on paper, in 1987.

Tamil nationalists

Prof Peiris contrasts Sri Lanka with India in terms of size and concludes that federalism is an absurdity. Firstly, size has very little to do with it: both the young SWRD and the mature Leonard Woolf regarded Switzerland (hardly a vast landmass) as a possible model for Ceylon. Secondly, and more importantly, where does the issue of federalism come in? While the Tamil nationalists may have it on their wish list it, the debate today, and certainly between Prof Peiris and me, pertains to provincial level devolution within a unitary state.


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External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid

Devolution, Sri Lanka’s defence and security

G.L Peiris and the unit of devolution Prof G.H. Peiris in his latest response (‘The Case against the Thirteenth Amendment’, The Island Midweek Review, May 22-23, ...